Proviso Township High School officials are grappling with the implications of a state law that requires African-American History to be taught in public elementary and high schools. 

Last year, the Illinois legislature voted HB 4346 into law. Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (4th) was among the bill’s senate sponsors.

The law states “a student may not complete the eighth grade or graduate from high school without studying this material and a school may meet this requirement through an online program or course,” according to an online summary.

Although all the stakeholders interviewed agreed that students should understand and study African-American history, there is some disagreement about what the new law actually says, how to implement it at District 209, and how quickly those changes should be made. 

Dr. Nicole Howard, assistant superintendent for Academics, Student and Family Services, said the experience of blacks in the United States is unique and the new law acknowledges that “vestiges of slavery” still exist in this country.

D209 school board member Rodney Alexander, a resident of Proviso Township since 1994 and a senior parole agent with the Illinois Department of Corrections for the last 18 years, has been among the most vocal proponents of the law. He said his passion for what is taught in D209 schools is both personal and professional.

His work with young, black men has regularly exposed him to the “vestiges” of slavery in America. Alexander ticked off some of those vestiges — violence, unemployment, poor health conditions, the prison population boom, and self-hatred. The board member said all of this can be attributed to the scourge of systemic racism.  

Alexander believes that the state law effectively mandates that schools require African-American history be taught in a stand-alone course — separate from other kinds of history. 

Bishop Reginald Saffo, chairman of the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network, agrees with Alexander. 

“We are asking the schools to comply with the current law,” Saffo said. “The bill requires that school districts offer a structured curriculum course of study on African-American history. The goal is to have the program in place by the fall. When I approached the district about this issue, they were very open to investigating the matter, which led them to conclude they were not in compliance.”

Howard, however, said the exact word used in the text of the bill is “unit,” which is not a separate course; that Proviso East already has an elective course on black history available to students; and that teaching the African-American experience already takes place in units within American History, civics and literature courses. She added that there are also events and initiatives related to African American and Latinx history that supplement what’s offered in the classroom. 

Board member Claudia Medina said the law only mandates a required course on African-American History at public universities. 

Still, Howard said, D209 is engaged in a major equity study, which she believes will surface more ideas on how to enhance the teaching of black history in the three high schools in the district. She said that it takes about a year for the school board, administration and faculty to go from the introduction of an idea to implementing it in the curriculum.

Right now, the idea of creating a separate black history course has only been introduced in the Student Achievement and School Innovation Committee chaired by Medina. D209 board President Ned Wagner said he couldn’t predict when a decision would be made regarding the issue. 

“At our most recent board meeting, [Supt. Jesse Rodriguez] presented the idea that D209 could adapt its curriculum to incorporate materials and techniques; not just to teach our students about these issues, but to emphasize the positive cultural attributes of our students so they can succeed in life because they are African American,” Wagner said.

“Education is the great equalizer and the key to liberation,” said Alexander. “Everyone has to be taught the same set of facts. When people know better, they do better.”